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Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: A House in California

I have a Mystery House ROM for my Apple II emulator, and I’m going to be truthful, Mr. Jake Elliott: your A House in California did not exactly resemble it as advertised.

Oh, sure, A House in California, recently named a nominee for the IGF’s coveted Nuovo Award, is all stark white flixels against a black backdrop, in the style of some early 1980s graphic adventure game. It is point-and-click interactive fiction, terribly sparse, with all possible parser commands weighting the bottom of the screen.

But the commands are strange—“Remember”? “Forget”? “Befriend”?—and sometimes, depending on what I accomplish in the game, the commands change. That is disturbing. But also, inexplicably satisfying, to see that I am somehow changing things with my actions?

I now totally get why House in California was included in this year’s Learn to Play gallery exhibit: the game uses a lot of “dream logic” and “guess-what-the-designer-wants-you-to-do,” and as you explore and progress, you find yourself making real sense of the game’s mediations. Like other good games that toy with their chosen genres, this game demands that the player learn its secret language.

In Part 1, Lois moves from place to place by “remembering” on certain objects: this segues play into a kind of flashback board, another place-and-time where Lois can remember how to do something in-game by recounting the circumstance in which she first learned to do it. To recall back to the game’s main action, Lois must “forget” what she’s thinking about. This turns game movement into a kind of procedural that mimics the way we ourselves think and do, and recollection’s role in thinking and doing. I am fighting to say something really intelligent and incisive, now, but maybe only a description of the game’s action is interesting enough.

In Part 2, Beulah, a writer (and a singer, and a cook), gets from place to place by writing or maybe reading about things—something about revisiting memory and making a different kind of thing out of it. You can see how this game ought to interest other game-makers.

In Part 3, playing as Connie, I broke and consulted a walkthrough because it was difficult to make any sense of all the butterflies. Maybe I could have figured out that watching things on the television—instead of remembering, see—would help me learn to do new things in Connie’s real world. But I was too used to playing the memory levels, and the introduction of the play mechanic’s newer idea, about learning passively through meditation and simulation, was utterly lost on me until later. Finally, in Part 4, you take all the pieces you’ve been tutored through—everything about learning and playing and reading—and the game gradually inverts and empties itself.

I’ve been complaining for a little while about certain independent games assigning ponderous values to mundane in-game actions, using hopping-over-a-curb as synecdoche for having-your-heart-broken and all that. I’ve also become annoyed with the use of 8- and 16-bit graphics to manufacture a sense of nostalgia. Maybe, in a way, A House in California is doing both, and then again it’s doing neither, or whatever it is doing, anyway, it does authentically.

The game feels fiercely autobiographical, too, but it doesn’t read, necessarily, as somebody else’s experience: playing the game made me ache with recognition.

My grandparents had a house in California—when I was a kid, I called it “The Big House”—and the backyard had a hill and a big stump with moss, and you could hear wind-chiming wafting from a great distance. My grandfather eventually moved away; he built a miniature version of the Big House on a patch of land in Kent, Washington, where we lived for a few years. I think a lot about someday having billions of dollars, knocking on my grandfather’s door, and asking the house’s occupants to please move out.

Or there was the one-storey house we had somewhere I think in Seattle, with these big fruit trees in the yard and all kinds of blossoms, maybe peaches or nectarines, squishing underfoot. Or there was me in my childhood bedroom in Texas, sitting at the computer click-click-clicking, and my adopto-mom standing in the doorway, pointing and hissing “I am so sorry we ever bought that thing.”

I was replaying Braid yesterday (thanks, Humble Bundle) and thinking about how hard it must be to write a nice art game. Text must be legible and so it must be used scrupulously or else completely fill the screen. And I wondered at how harsh the written parts of Braid really seem, all these prolix passages with actual, physical wayposts serving as textual wayposts. It doesn’t quite work.

Maybe Braid’s rhythm is all wrong, in spots. Ian Bogost, quoted capaciously in Stephen Totilo’s What If A Video Game Was Poetry, speculates that limited meter is what matters, not only in the writing itself, but in a game’s “constrained technical architecture, the way you program it, even the form of the assembly code on the screen—these long thin codes of data.”

Again, I worry that if I say too much else on the subject, I’ll ruin it. Probably that’s what Professor Bogost means by “meter,” in the end.

One response to “Playing through the 2011 IGF Nuovo final-list: A House in California” »

  1. Jenn Frank says:

    The day after I posted this, I peeked over my best childhood friend’s shoulder as she attempted House. She doesn’t play computer games, although she did once own a SNES. She asked me what to do. I told her if the game were any good, she’d figure it out. Then I explained that in old text games you had to tell the machine what you wanted—to “look at lamp,” “get lamp”—but this would be easier to play because she could just point at the, there, there, you’ve got the right idea, click around and make little sentences. And she said, “I’ve got to get these fireflies, how do I catch these fireflies,” and I was delighted! I told her, “You already get what you have to do. But really, you have to catch enough fireflies.”

    And when she was done with the very first screen (“The first stage was the hardest,” she said afterward, and I agreed, “Because that was when you first learned how to play”), she said, “This can’t be the only screen.” And I said, “Right! It can’t be! You already know you’re supposed to be somewhere else!” And that’s when she realized she needed to use a point-and-click verb on some faraway object in a way that didn’t make any rational sense. And I said, “You’ve got it! You already know what the designer wants you to do! You have learned the secret language!” And she said, “Weeeeird.”

    And then she didn’t need my help anymore. I left and came back. I gently reminded her that she didn’t have to keep playing, but she finished the game anyway. “This is fun,” she mumbled. She automatically knew that making the imperative statement “Read clouds” would take her to another screen with more to accomplish. How does a non-gamer figure it out so fast? Afterward I wanted her to explain to me how she knew, or tell me what made it fun, but we weren’t equipped with the language to discuss it for very long.

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